Assad throws all-out offensive at rebels
PRESIDENT Bashar al-Assad's forces used artillery, jets and a helicopter gunship to pound rebel positions in Syria's biggest city, witnesses have said, in a battle that could determine the outcome of the 17-month uprising.
After United Nations (UN) Security Council paralysis on Syria forced peace envoy Kofi Annan to resign last week, and with his ceasefire plan a distant memory, rebels were battered on Saturday by the onslaught they had expected in Aleppo and the capital, Damascus.
Syria has accused Turkey, Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Qatar of backing rebels in Syria and fuelling violence there. Iran meanwhile has supported Mr Assad's efforts to crush the revolt.
"There is one helicopter and we're hearing two explosions every minute," said a witness in Aleppo, Syria's commercial hub.
Syrian forces struck at Aleppo's Salaheddine district, a gateway into the city of 2.5-million people that has become the frontline of an increasingly sectarian conflict that has killed about 18,000 people and could spill into neighbouring countries.
A local rebel commander said his fighters were preparing for a "strong offensive" by government forces on the city. In Damascus, jets bombarded the capital as troops kept up an offensive they began on Friday to storm the last rebel bastion there.
The government said at the weekend the majority of rebels had been killed or forced to retreat.
Both cities had been relatively free from violence during the uprising but fighting flared in Damascus after a July 18 bombing that killed four of Mr Assad's inner circle, and also erupted in Aleppo.
On Saturday, a rebel commander in Aleppo said he expected a Syrian army attack on rebels "within days", echoing the head of the UN peacekeeping department, who said there had been a "considerable build-up of military means".
"We know they are planning to attack the city using tanks and aircraft, shooting at us for three to four days, and they plan to take the city," Col Abdel-Jabbar al-Oqaidi said.
Rebels tried to extend their area of control in Aleppo from Salaheddine to the area around the television and radio station, but were pushed back by Mr Assad's troops, an activist said. Syrian television said a large number of "terrorists" were killed and wounded after they tried to storm the broadcaster.
After Mr Annan's resignation, the UN General Assembly voted on Friday to condemn the Syrian government and criticise the UN Security Council's failure to agree on tougher action, in a resolution that western diplomats said highlighted the isolation of Mr Assad's supporters, Russia and China.
Russia called the vote a "facade of humanitarian rhetoric" behind which Mr Assad's foreign enemies were arming the rebels and worsening the violence that has elements of a proxy war between Sunni and Shiite Islam, which could spill beyond Syrian borders.
Russia also agreed to provide crude and oil products to offset the loss of shipments from its traditional suppliers due to sanctions by the European Union and US.
Mr Assad is a member of the Alawite faith, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that has dominated Syrian politics through more than 40 years of his family's rule in a country that has a Sunni Muslim majority. The mostly Sunni Muslim Gulf Arab states and Turkey have called for him to go, but he still has the backing of Shiite Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah group.
In Damascus, a resident in the Adawi district reported that jets had pounded an area of the capital on Saturday. Syrian television said a terrorist group had committed a massacre in the Damascus suburb of Yalda. It said 20 people had been killed. It was not immediately possible to verify the incident as Syria restricts foreign media access.